A Letter to my Camper, z”l
By Jacob Cytryn, Director
My camper Seth Rich, a member of Nivonim 2005 and a proud child of Omaha, Nebraska, was murdered two years ago today on the Hebrew calendar. This past Shabbat his aidah celebrated their 13th reunion, an event which Seth would have surely attended. Here is what I wish I could say to him.
After a mostly rainy weekend the sun came out this morning and camp is hot and humid, the type of weather you loved to sail in and cruise the lake on the motorboat as Rosh boating. Your aidah has left camp after what felt to me like a great weekend. They came out in droves – nearly thirty-five strong – schlepping to Conover from Chicago, the Twin Cities, Boston, San Francisco, and New York. The group who came embodied the pure love for camp of Nivonim 2005, a love you exemplified. Though I did not spend every waking minute with them, the time I spent with them, my campers during my Rosh Aidah summers of 2003 and 2005, was spent with a glow and reverence for each other and for camp.
They toured with awe the new buildings around camp, making shakshuka in our new mitbachon (teaching kitchen), learning about the symbolism of the new givah (Nivo Hill campus) some of which was inspired directly by Nivo ’05 and gaping at the beauty of the Nivo moadon (lounge), cabins, and – most of all! – the bathrooms. They were amazed by the chadar ochel (dining hall), which you ate in during your last summer on staff but which many of them had not. They asked how camp has changed and how camp has stayed the same. They kept asking how they could get more involved, help camp out, volunteer, support enrollment, and more.
They shared memories and scrapbooks. Of Shabbat-o-grams and pictures and the Zimriyah (Song Festival). They read through the yearbook that your tzevet (staff) put together for all of you at the end of the summer, filled with predictions for each of you that are nearly all comically absurd in retrospect. They told inside jokes, resurrected for one week the old staff softball game (they won), and walked around camp. More than one remarked how surprised they were at how at home they suddenly felt when they got here, muscle memory taking over as they walked around camp. One of them, in a moment of shared intimacy that brought me back to that bygone Rosh Aidah-camper relationship, commented how he thinks that had he returned for one more summer it would have altered the course of his life and he’d still be here today.
You would have fit into this group, hugging and laughing and asking. You would have brought your own perspective to things, shared your own reasoned thoughts, balanced the absurd and goofy with the thoughtful and deep. You surely would have asked about how camp promotes civic engagement and would have felt such pride seeing the twenty-plus members of your synagogue who are campers here.
Last night we said ma’ariv (evening prayer) together so we could say Kaddish for you, two years removed from the night you were murdered. I shared my experiences speaking at your synagogue about you and your legacy and the impact of Camp Ramah at a concert this spring to help kids get to camp through a scholarship fund now named after you. We spoke about your role in building the dag nachash (don’t ask) and riling up the crowds at the Woodchucks game. (Lots of Woodchucks regalia was worn throughout the weekend.) We spoke about building a roofball court in your memory here at camp, and someone suggested afterwards that we find a way to incorporate the legendary Nivo ’05 plaque into the design – including a representation of the giant tennis ball you brought to camp every summer. We spoke about the over-the-top Kiddush your parents threw for us in Nivo, and how they have continued to send up doughnuts to me throughout these many years, even – heartbreakingly – as they sat shivah for you two years ago. All Krispy Kreme doughnuts are now bittersweet.
I wish we didn’t have to do these things. I wish your dear friend didn’t sing the El Malei memorial prayer and intone your name last night. I wish there was no Seth Conrad Rich Scholarship Fund at Beth El Synagogue and no Seth Conrad Rich Endowment at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin to help send campers from small Jewish communities to camp. I wish there would be no roofball court in your memory. I wish your parents and your brother and sister-in-law did not go through the profound loss they have. And I wish you had been here to see this place that gave you so much and, far more importantly, that you gave yourself too, with the friends of whose aidah community you were such an integral part.
I cannot attest to what else happened this weekend: I wasn’t there for every conversation or for the excursion down the road on Saturday night. But I felt you and I know others did as well. One shared an amazing picture of you in your full Woodchucks glory, looking as if you’d just won the lottery. He wants your parents to have a hard copy – it’ll be in the mail soon. I wasn’t there when we videotaped your friends sharing stories and memories about you.
Seth, we say in the memorial prayer וצרור בצרור החיים את נשמתו / utzror bitzror hachayim et nishmato / may his soul be bound up in the bonds of eternal life. As I have and will continue to visit your eternal resting place in Omaha, I will do what I can for as long as I can to nurture this place where your love and commitment to Ramah will help generations of campers experience the magic that changed your life and connected you, a kid from Omaha, with a greater Jewish community. And maybe, just maybe, someday a scrawny kid with bleached-blonde hair who loves to play soccer will walk off a bus and grow into someone who is able to toggle back-and-forth between the exuberant side of camp and its more intellectual and reflective one.
Thirteen summers ago we marched into the Zimriyah and sang a song. Whenever I think of you I think of it.
עוד לא אהבת די / od lo ahavta dai / you did not get to love us and the world you lived in long enough.
עוד לא אהבנו די / od lo ahavnu dai / we did not get to love you enough either.
יהי זכרך ברוך / yehi zichr’cha baruch / may your memory be a blessing.